By Paul Gardner
This sort of thing happens far too often, I'm afraid. At least, it does so here in the States. Some visitors from Europe were in town over the weekend -- soccer people, as it happened, and they thought they'd like to take a look at an MLS game. Perfect -- the Red Bulls were in town, playing against Seattle.
So off we went ... to be treated to a game that left the visitors with the impression that MLS soccer was quite simply not worth watching. Not that they were exactly saying that -- but the diplomacy they employed while not saying it spoke loudly and eloquently enough.
Before the game I had explained that we were going to see two teams that were both coming off humiliating 4-0 losses, so we could expect to see ... well what? Two teams very anxious not to lose, for sure. I said it would work out like this: that the Red Bulls would come out with attacking, goalscoring soccer as their main priority; and that the Seattle Sounders, playing away from home, would be more cautious, but would still present an attacking face ... because I’ve not noticed them, under Coach Sigi Schmid, to be a particularly defensive team, and because they have one of the best attacking players in the league in Fredy Montero, surely always capable of winning a game single-handedly, or footedly.
Mostly, I got that all wrong. For a start, the pre-game news was that Montero was on the bench. What?. Up front, instead, was a modest, average player, a midfielder at that, Brad Evans. That, in addition to being a blow to my prediction activities, was also a big disappointment. How many players with Montero’s goalscoring artistry, with his sneaky-skillful attacking moves do we have in this league? Pitifully few. To find one of those few benched to make way for a decidedly pedestrian replacement was not encouraging.
A further disappointment was to find that Hans Backe, the Red Bulls coach, was persisting with midfielder Carl Robinson, a midfielder of limited range and ability, who spends most of each game voraciously patrolling the center-circle while waving his arms up and down and far and wide in frantic efforts to tell everyone else how to play. Exactly what he adds to the team to justify his center-circle exertions, I fail to see.
What followed for the next 78 minutes was an exercise in futility, boredom, exasperation and ugliness. Passing? Almost non-existent. Coordinated attacking therefore almost totally absent. Miskicks, aimless headers, high balls and clumsy (though not all that violent) tackling were the mainstays of this travesty of the sport.
After the game Backe, who never seeks to hide his views of matters, did try, though not too hard, to make things sound like a soccer game, but finally admitted that the game rated just “average” (a wild overestimate, I’d say), and that maybe it wasn’t a soccer game at all, more of “a battle.” His body language and his facial expressions told the story more clearly, I thought: He was not delighted with the way things had gone. OK -- his team had lost the game, the first time they’d dropped any points at home. But they had done absolutely nothing to merit a win here. This was an utterly threadbare performance that never posed a serious threat to the Seattle goal.
Seattle coach Schmid, as articulate as ever, was obviously in a much more upbeat mood. As were his players -- the roaring and singing escaping from the Seattle locker room sounded like they’d just won the championship.
This was -- statistically at least -- a very good win, and Schmid let us know that. Fair enough. But the win contained one of those coaching contradictions that I always feel cry out for an explanation, and which always seem (to me, that is) to end up reflecting praise on the coach, when that might not be the truth of the matter.
The conundrum is this: was it a stroke of coaching genius to keep Montero on the bench for 78 minutes, then to have him come on to score a brilliant winning goal; or was it simply a dumb move not start him and maybe have him score a first-half hat trick?
Schmid was defensive about this. It was a coach’s choice, etc. Read, a disciplinary measure. So was Montero, in some coach sort of way, being held responsible for that 4-0 loss to Los Angeles? No, said Schmid, not at all. But ... and soon enough it became clear that the trouble with Montero was that he hadn’t been working hard enough. “Fredy just got into a habit where he wasn’t quite active enough. The talent is always there; the ability is always there. He just wasn’t getting into the box where he can be most dangerous.”
Schmid pointed out that the winning goal against the Red Bulls was the first goal that Montero had scored -- from open play -- since I forget when. Now the bench treatment had done the job. “I told him yesterday, you’re not starting, but the minutes you do play are going to be the most important minutes of the game, and you can impact the game,” said Schmid.
Well, there’s certainly more than one way of trying to make sense out of that. Why would an experienced coach like Schmid find it necessary to bench a player for what sounds like a tactical failing? And are we really expected to believe that Montero deliberately puts himself into positions where he cannot do what he does best -- score goals?
And now that Schmid’s move -- on shaky post hoc reasoning -- seems to have worked, can we now expect that to have proved that the best way to use Montero’s massive talent is to leave him on the bench until the final 15 minutes of each game?
Coaching logic, a flimsy exercise, demands such tortured questions, I’m afraid.